What’s the big deal about playing fast? Three words: intensity, aggression and power. It’s like driving a Porsche and slamming the pedal to the metal. Fast and furious is fun.
In the Sixties, guitarists like Alvin Lee and John McLaughlin were revered for their fluid styles. And soon, other players such as Michael Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore and Al Di Meola surfaced, each raising the bar of technical virtuosity another notch.
Then, in 1978, Eddie Van Halen upped the ante again, cutting loose to wail the blistering solo “Eruption. The song sent a shockwave throughout the guitar world, and overnight guitarists were consumed with building monster chops.
But while Van Halen may have ignited the spark that fueled the need for speed, it was Yngwie Malmsteen, a Swedish guitarist, who officially launched the shred era into its full blaze of glory. For the next decade, Malmsteen and other guitarists like Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai and Nuno Bettencourt would electrify listeners with their awe-inspiring fretboard acrobatics.
This lesson is a celebration of the styles and techniques that emerged during the heyday of the shred era. So put down your capos and retune your guitars to standard—it’s time to learn to burn.
Anyone who knows anything about speed and technical efficiency knows that everything begins with alternate picking. It’s a matter of science: less motion equals less time elapsed.
By definition, alternate picking is a combination of two separate right-hand movements: plucking the string downward and plucking the string upward. There are different schools of alternate picking: those who prefer to attack the string dead on and those who prefer to attack it using a circular motion. But the idea is the same either way. By striking notes in strict down-and-up alternation, you can play faster and with less effort.
But just because you happen to use alternate picking doesn’t necessarily mean you can automatically play fast. It takes a lot of practice to develop synchronization between your right and left hands.
One of the best places to begin is by picking the notes of a major scale, like the one in FIGURE 1.
Watch your right hand closely as you play the scale up and back, slowly. How much of your picking hand moves when you’re playing? Ideally most of the motion should be narrowed down to just the two digits holding the pick—your thumb and first finger. So work at minimizing the motion. The less your wrist and arm are involved, the more efficient your overall picking motion will be.
Another point to address is whether or not your picking hand is anchored on the body of the guitar. It should be. You see, supporting your hand somehow—whether by planting your pinkie on the pick guard or resting the heel of your hand on the bridge—is crucial to gaining control.
With these points in mind, continue running up and down the scale in FIGURE 1. Pace yourself. Be precise. And above all, be patient. Don’t allow yourself to speed up and sound clumsy. Master the slower tempos first, and then move on. Bear in mind that looking for improvement in your technique is a lot like watching a clock. If you stare at it, nothing much seems to be happening. Don’t get discouraged if your playing doesn’t miraculously improve overnight. Just stick with it.
Once you’re comfortable playing up and down the major scale in FIGURE 1, try mixing up the notes and forming a few new sequences. FIGURES 2 through 4 are especially helpful for building good, solid alternate-picking chops. Follow the patterns given, and practice daily at an even tempo. Stay focused and relaxed, and continue to strive for evenness and clarity as you play each note.
Now let’s try applying alternate picking to an arpeggio, shown in FIGURE 5
Here, the technique becomes increasingly more difficult, since your right-hand motion is magnified when you skip from string to string. Play the example using alternate picking, first beginning with a downstroke. Then reverse it, beginning with an upstroke. You’ll be surprised by what a difference it makes to vary the motion from down-up-down-up to up-down-up-down.
To solidify and further exploit the concept of alternate picking, let’s look at a few more exercises. FIGURES 6 through 8 are excellent for conditioning your right-hand technique. Again, be sure to maintain strict alternate picking throughout.
Now that we’ve established the idea of alternate picking, let’s look at its counterpart: sweep picking. This technique, which is also referred to as “economy picking,” incorporates successive downstrokes (or upstrokes) to travel across the strings with the least amount of right-hand movement.
To illustrate, play the arpeggio in FIGURE 9. Use downstrokes for the first five notes and strive for one continuous “sweeping” motion (rather than five individual downstrokes) as you cross the strings. Then, follow the picking pattern shown between the tab and notation and finish the example.
Be careful: A common pitfall is to sweep across the strings too quickly, thereby losing single-note definition. This takes a lot of coordination between right and left hands. As fast as you can pick the notes, you need to release them with your left hand so that they don’t ring together This point can’t be emphasize enough. You’re still picking here—you shouldn’t be strumming.
Next, try applying the same idea to a scale, as in FIGURE 10.
In this case, the “sweep” occurs only as you transition from one string to another. Consequently, the first four pick strokes should be as follows: down, up, down, down. When you have this scale under your fingers using sweep picking, go back and try it again using alternate picking exclusively. Notice the subtle differences?
Generally speaking, sweep picking is more efficient—hence the name “economy picking.” So, although alternate picking is arguably the most versatile picking method, it may be beneficial to use sweep picking on occasion for greater speed and fluidity.
FIGURES 11 and 12 show additional phrases that take advantage of sweep picking. Start slowly, cleanly and evenly at first, building speed and facility gradually. You can hear lines like these on recordings from players like Paul Gilbert, Frank Gambale and Steve Vai.
String skipping is challenging, but it will give your licks a very high-tech, modern sound. It doesn’t require any new picking techniques—just a mixture of alternate picking and sweep picking in a broader context.
FIGURE 13 is a typical arpeggio-like phrase positioned in a string-skipping context. Use your 2nd finger to fret the first note, followed by your 1st finger, 2nd finger, 4th finger, and 1st finger again to stretch for the high note. Start slowly, and build speed gradually. Then, when you feel comfortable, try adding two more notes as in FIGURE 14.
Let’s pursue this idea further. FIGURE 15 is a triplet-based lick in E minor. Here, keep your left hand in 12th position and reach out with your pinkie to fret the high A.
FIGURE 16 illustrates another standard string-skipping maneuver. This time, the phrase follows a specific sequence—a linear pattern in C major that is movable up or down the fretboard.
And finally, try FIGURE 17, which includes an even larger string jump. Ordinarily, string-skipping phrases are used in rapid-fire fashion—repetitious licks that can stand alone as a mini-song or work in a live, unaccompanied solo. But don’t worry about speed initially. Your focus should be on executing the phrases smoothly.
Legato phrasing is common to the styles of Joe Satriani, Richie Kotzen, George Lynch and many other guitarists. There are three means of playing legato: hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides. These techniques, also called “slurs,” allow you to play more than one note for each pick attack. In other words, you’ll be able to pick the string once and “slur” two or more notes, giving you a smooth flowing sound.
For starters, go ahead and play the phrase given in FIGURE 18. Attack the first note, hammer on to the second and third notes, and then pull off to sound the remaining note. Play it again, and this time listen to make sure that all of the notes sound even in terms of volume and rhythmic timing.
FIGURE 19 is similar but slightly more difficult. Take your time and practice the phrase over and over without stopping, until you think you’ve got it.
Now let’s make things a little more interesting. FIGURES 20 and 21 are legato phrases that mix in a few intermittent pick strokes. Take a look at the picking directions given between the tab and notation staves, and then play each lick as shown. One more physical point: Effective legato playing requires left-hand strength and stamina, so be patient and run through these lines daily.
Right-hand tapping, also known as “bi-dextral technique,” is one of the most distinctive and emblematic guitar styles of the shred scene. Although Eddie Van Halen popularized it on a global scale in the late Seventies, numerous players pioneered the technique earlier.
Just as the name suggests, you’re going fret notes with your pick hand using the tip of your index or middle finger. The basic articulation involves a three-step sequence of events—attack, pull and hammer.
The first sample lick, shown in FIGURE 22, is an E minor arpeggio. Begin by tapping the B at the 12th fret of the 2nd string with your right-hand index finger. Next, use that finger to pull off—or more precisely, push off—to sound the E at the 5th fret. Then, hammer on to the G at the 8th fret, using the pinkie finger of your left hand. That’s it!
Continue this pattern as a repeating phrase until you achieve a smooth, steady result. One final note: Use a combination of your right and left hands to mute the other strings and prevent them from accidentally sounding.
FIGURE 23 adds a new wrinkle. Here, your right hand is used to tap a scalar melody. The same three-step sequence still applies. The only thing that changes is the fret that your right hand taps.
Let’s take another modification. Typically guitarists render tapping phrases that travel from string to string, like FIGURE 24. It may feel awkward for a while, so relax—try it slow to start with, and increase your speed later, when it feels more comfortable.
Now, for something completely different, look at FIGURE 25. In this example, the standard three-step sequence is adjusted. Instead of alternating between three notes—two with your left hand and one with your right hand—this figure alternates between four notes. Review the music carefully and try playing through the lick.
Finally, let’s put it all together. FIGURE 26 features tapping in conjunction with sweep picking. Take a few minutes now to get yourself acquainted with the required right- and left-hand movements. Then take a deep breath and go for it.
In closing, bear in mind that whenever you come across any phrase or technical barrier that feels clumsy, isolate the part that seems unmanageable and practice toward removing that stumbling block. The more stumbling blocks you’re able to remove, the more technically accomplished you’ll become.
Also, try rehearsing these exercises using an acoustic guitar. It’s a great way to develop strength and stamina, since the string gauge, action and neck of an acoustic guitar generally make it more difficult to play than an electric guitar. By harnessing your newly acquired knowledge of guitar mechanics, you should be ready to tap into a variety of interesting new sounds. Take your time, have fun, and don’t hurt yourself.